Transatlantic life

New kind of Christmas tree

Canaan Fir Christmas Tree
A few days ago we went out to buy our Christmas tree. After five stops at different places we finally found one we were happy with and were told it was a Canaan Fir, a hybrid between the balsam fir (Abies balsamea) and the Fraser fir (Abies fraseri). I’d never heard of it so when we got home I looked it up.

It turns out that there’s a good reason that I’d never heard of this hybrid – it doesn’t exist. And the name Canaan Fir doesn’t mean that it’s found in Canaan (as in Israel, Palestine, and Jordan).

The Canaan Fir is actually a variety of the balsam fir, A. balsamea var. phanerolepis, which is distinguished from the regular balsam fir in details of the shape of parts of the cone. Not only that, it’s actually a local ecotype, a specific regional variant.

Abies balsamea var. phanerolepis grows wild from Labrador south to Ontario, and continuing south along the coast of Maine all the way to the mountains of Virginia and West Virginia. But some that grow in a small area of West Virginia, known locally as the Canaan Valley (with the weight on the second syllable of Canaan) are slightly different and it is from seed of these, collected at elevations over 3000ft, that cultivated Canaan Fir Christmas trees are derived.

The Canaan Fir has become popular as a Christmas Tree in recent years because it’s especially long lasting when cut, it retains its needles well and also retains the fragrance of the balsam fir. At first I thought its branches seemed rather weak but now, after a couple of days fully laden with ornaments and lights (nine hundred of them!), it’s actually holding up very well. I’ll add an update to this post around Twelfth Night/Little Christmas/Women’s Christmas (6 January, when we take the tree down) and report on how it’s doing.

Also, on a related topic (deep breath, please)… When we unpacked our nine strings of red and gold Christmas tree lights it turned out that after a year in a box in the basement only three of them still worked. So off I dashed to Lowes (Brits: = B&Q) to buy more.

And I was amazed at the price. Amazed! The price was absolutely outrageous! Each box of 100 minilights cost me $1.44 (including sales tax). Yes, $1.44.

Of course, they were made in China. And they were so cheap because wages there are so low. So if Mr. Trump brings these jobs back to America and pays American workers an American wage to make them, how much do you think those lights will cost? $15? $20? Will you buy them at that price? And, if you do, what will you do when they pack up after spending a year tucked away in a big brown box? You’ll be back to Lowes raising hell. And, if you want better lights that last for years, how much are you prepared to pay? It’s not as simple as Mr. Trump would have us believe.

Not yet winter in Pennsylvania

Geranium phaeum 'Samobor' seedling with startling fall leaf color. Image ©
National Public Radio reported this week that lilacs were in bloom in Washington, DC. A friend near here in Pennsylvania reports picking salad leaves from the open garden just a few days ago while anther says her spring crocuses are in bloom. It’s been mild back in Britain too.

Here in our garden the mild season has ensured that some plants developing late fall color have lasted and lasted. One young seedling of Geranium phaeum ‘Samobor’ has produced some spectacular leaves (above, click to enlarge); the original plant and other seedlings are more of a blotchy yellow.

Hydrangea-quercifolia-Little-Honey-_J037665-700One of my favorite shrubs, Hydrangea Little Honey (‘Brihon’) (right, click to enlarge), a dwarf yellow-leaved form of the oak-leaved hydrangea, always turns burgundy red in the fall but often a couple of sharp frosts reduces the plant to bare stems. Not this year, the leaves have been wine red for weeks with a few just starting to develop fierier tones as they prepare to drop.

The other effect of these unseasonably mild weeks has been that after the first few, relatively gentle, frosts turned everything in the riverside meadows tawny brown – that’s how they stayed. The foxtail grass in the fields where the rudbeckias are such summer stars, I think this is Setaria viridis, has neither been crippled by frost nor battered by rain or snow and still stands out against the leafless escarpment. Lovely.

We’ve gentle frosts forecast for the weekend, with a high of 57F and a low of 39F forecast for Christmas Day. The snowdrops are in bud, but check out the Snowdrops In American Gardens Facebook group for news of plenty of snowdrops blooming merrily all over the country.

Oh, and a friend in Downeast Maine reports that the grass is growing and needs a trim. But I don’t care how long it gets here we’re not cutting the grass in December.

Foxtail grass, Setaria, still looking lovely on the Delaware River flood plain. Image ©

The Philadelphia Flower Show

Jacques Armand International exhibit at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Image ©GardenPhotos.comWe were at the Philadelphia Flower Show on Friday and it was quite an eye opener. Though quite why the country’s best known flower show is held in a dark and dingy exhibition hall when there’s 2ft/60cm of snow on the ground is baffling.

But both the landscapers and the individual exhibitors rose to the occasion, as they have done since 1829, with spring bulbs, orchids, tropical foliage and begonias in particular providing color.

There are two main types of horticultural exhibits: displays of plants staged by landscapers and the competitions for individual plants in staged by home gardeners. The tulips, daffodls and dwarf bulbs staged by Jacques Amand International (left, click to enlarge) and the orchids from Waldor Orchids stood out.

The Jacques Amand exhibit, along with bold clumps of tulips that were proving remarkably resilient after more than a week in the poor light, featured drifts of ‘Alida’, a lovely vivid blue reticulata iris which is a sterile sport of the old favorite ‘Harmony’. The orchids on the Waldor Orchids exhibit were mainly well established varieties – why risk your really special plants in such difficult conditions? – but included some dramatic specimens. I’ll not mention the name of the exhibit that featured a frost-hardy, moisture loving astilbe alongside a frost-tender, drought loving agave. Not a planting idea to be recommended.

Over in the better lit competitions for individual plants, the range of scented-leaved and foliage pelargoniums was impressive and there were also some rare orchids to be seen. The Black Orchid, Cymbidium Black Ruby, at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Image ©
Former trustee of the American Orchid Society, and author of Bloom-Again Orchids, judywhite – aka (if you dare!) Mrs Rice – picked one out. “There was an orchid hybrid, Cymbidium Black Ruby (C. canaliculatum x Ruby Eyes), that Lois Duffin of the Greater Philadelphia Orchid Society exhibited, that was one of the darkest blackest flowers I've seen. So much so that people seem to now be calling that cross the Black Orchid. But her unnamed cultivar was exceptionally dark, and also had a white picotee edge to it. Very nice, unusual.”

But here’s the thing. For most of the exhibitors the fact that show is held in the snowy Philadelphia winter is irrelevant, it may even be an advantage. After all, if you’re trying to sell people cruises and beach vacations, trudging through snow to get to the show probably makes them more inclined to yearn for a sunny getaway.

For there are far far more sales stands, many unrelated to gardening (dog treats, soap, jewelry…), than anything else. The Marketplace alone was filled with 195 sales stands, with more outside the main hall and among the 44 more-or-less horticultural exhibits. Some were definitely for gardeners, including the Hudson Valley Seed Library and Peony's Envy Flower Farm, but Disney and Subaru were everywhere. And, frankly, speaking as an A. A. Milne fan, a display that is “inspired by the movie Winnie The Pooh” starts off at a disadvantage, says he politely. Perhaps I’m just the wrong generation.

Dan Aykroyd promoting his Crystal Head vodka at the Philadelphia Flower Show. Image ©GardenPhotos.comThere was also, and I didn’t expect this, a lot of alcohol about. Glasses of wines and spirits were on sale at a number of sites in the main exhibit hall - I saw one visitor making off with a double sized bottle of red wine from one of the concessions. The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who run the show, even have its own brand of cider.

And then there was actor and comedian Dan Aykroyd (click to enlarge). He was up on the stage in the main exhibit hall promoting his Crystal Head vodka and then he cheerfully spent hours signing the labels for the long line of people queuing patiently to the accompaniment of a rock band.

So, having judged many times at The Chelsea Flower Show in London, can I suggest any lessons that Chelsea could learn from Philly? Keep up the good work, seems to be the main lesson, and don’t be tempted to expand the shopping or add vodka promotions.

But wait, it’s all very well for me to be snippy about the domination of shopping at the flower show. But the number of Americans who share the well-known British mania for gardening is limited and Americans love to shop more than Brits do (although Brits are catching up fast). So perhaps the show has it right after all? And without it the finances of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society would surely be in a very sad state.

Supermarket surprises


DandelionsSupermarketMore unexpected things are happening in the produce aisle at the local Pennsylvania supermarkets – and not just the abominable blue and lilac poinsettias.

First of all, I spotted a much derided, invasive alien species on sale next to the kale – dandelions. Nice, fresh, bundles at $2.99/£1.90 a pound. They vanished and never returned.

And that’s another thing. Local supermarkets have started selling lettuce by weight. $1.99/£1.27 a pound I paid yesterday which is great: small heads no longer cost the same as large ones. Except that you end up paying for all the water they spray on the produce – complete with atmospheric thunderstorm sound effects – presumably attempting to keep it fresh. Of course, when you get it home and put it in the fridge it rots more quickly because it’s so wet – so you have dry it.

This is also the supermarket – Weis Markets, let’s not be coy – that uses large orange “Organic” labels to cover the blemishes on its apples and which failed to mention its Tuesday discount for seniors for a whole year of weekly Tuesday visits. If you spend enough, they also offer a discount when you go to get gas – but you have to drive more than thirty miles to find a gas station that participates. “Our gas rewards program offers up to twice the savings of other grocery stores,” they say. Maybe – but you have to drive ten times as far to get them.

But - on the plus side - recently they’ve had a really superb little lettuce that I’d not seen before. Small and fat, with soft slender stems, it’s pale green with a bold crimson zone covering about a third to a half of each leaf – it looks like a cross between a ‘Little Gem’ baby Romaine and a Boston/Butterhead type, it’s like a red-tipped, soft, ‘Little Gem’. It really is excellent so I'm trying to find out exactly whch variety it is.


Curiosities of Transatlantic travel

Just back in Pennsylvania from England, with some strange stories about Christmas crackers, doggy bags and windscreen washer fluid.

Christmas crackers
Christmas Cracker - confiscated at the airport

Before leaving England, I packed two large boxes of Christmas crackers in my suitcase to bring back to the US. They took up more than half the space in the only case I’m allowed without having to pay $100 extra. [For the benefit of American readers, who may be unfamiliar with Christmas crackers, these are the decorated cardboard tubes, with a little parcel of gifts inside and a paper hat and a silly joke (see below). Two people each pull on an end of the tube, the cracker breaks with a bang created by the same sort of material that’s in a cap gun, and out spills the goodies.] I know crackers are not a big thing for Americans at Christmas, which is why I always bring some good ones back from England.

Well. My two boxes of eight – about $75 worth - were confiscated at the airport in London. Apparently the tiny TINY MINISCULE amount of material that makes the bang sets off the security sensors that detect explosives. So that was that. First time I’ve heard of this in 15 years of transatlantic cracker transportation. So be warned. Christmas crackers are not allowed on flights. You can, I have to say, buy Christmas crackers in the US of course, they’re listed on and on eBay too. But they’re not the same.

Doggy bags
The Bear at Oxshott in SurreySo - the family had a Christmas lunch at The Bear in Oxshott in Surrey, an old English pub which has developed its food in a big way. The food was good, the service a little slow though for a family get-together slow service is no bad thing. But. The portions were a good size – especially for my four-year old grandson – but they would not box the surplus and up let us take the extra food home. They would not give us a “doggy bag”, as the English expression has it.

The rather mixed reasoning from staff cited health and safety regulations and we were also told that if customers took food home, reheated it and became ill as a result of not re-heating the food sufficiently – the pub would get the blame.

They would rather throw good food away than risk getting the blame if in a day or two a customer is ill.

I can’t imagine any American restaurant trying that one.

Screen wash
British screenwash is five times the price of American windshield washer

Finally… I long ago learnt that just about everything is more expensive in Britain than in the US. The rule of thumb is that the number might well be the same - but it’s £££ rather than $$$ so the currency conversion adds about 50% to the price.

But driving home from my daughter’s shortly before flying back, the screenwash ran out. I stopped to buy some. It cost me £6.99 ($11.43) for four liters (1.06 US gallons) – that’s $10.78 per US gallon. Yesterday I bought a bottle of windshield washer here in Pennsylvania – it cost me $2.09 for one US gallon (3.78 liters). The British windscreen washer fluid was more than FIVE TIMES the price!

The petrol, by the way, at £1.299 per liter (= $8.04 per US gallon) was a little over twice the price of gas in our local gas station here in Pennsylvania. Most of the extra cost is tax, of course – and Brits do have universal free health care.

Merry Christmas!

Next day: Jokes from Christmas crackers
OK, this will give you an idea of what's required in a Christmas cracker joke. They're all from the crackers left over from last year. Try them at your party - and be prepared for the groans!

Q: What do you call a boomerang that doesn't come back?
A: A stick

Q: What did the fish say when it swam into a wall?
A: Dam

Q: Why are ghosts so bad at lying?
A: You can see right through them.

Q: Why was 6 afraid of 7?
A: Because 7 8 9.

Q: What do you give the man who has everything?
A: Antibiotics

Q: What do you call someone who makes clothes for rabbits?
A: A hare dresser.

Q: How does Good King Wenceslas like his pizza?
A: Deep and crisp and even.

Q: What did the grape do when it got stepped on?
A: It let out a little wine.

Thank you, and goodnight...

Superstorm Sandy here in Pennsylvania

Hurricane Sandy pictures, from The Guardian
First it was Hurricane Sandy, then it was the Frankenstorm and now it’s Superstorm Sandy. For many people in New York, New Jersey and in particular it was - and indeed still is - unimaginably horrific.

Here in north east Pennsylvania we got off lightly; we were without electricity, heat, water and internet for almost exactly four days until yesterday afternoon and with highly unpredictable phone service for most of that time. A 50ft maple fell across our driveway, taller hemlocks fell nearby on one side, even taller oaks and maples on the other. One went right through our neighbor’s shed; but our houses were spared. Strangely, in spite of those ferocious winds, there are still golden leaves on our Asian witch hazel and bright yellow leaves on our Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’.

I’m not going to show you pictures of our fallen trees – it’s nothing compared to what some people have suffered. On The Guardian’s website you can see pictures of the storm damage and pictures of the aftermath.

Local radio service was knocked out by the storm, so we only had radio service from New York 80 miles away, which was the opposite of what Brits would expect: public radio news was embarrassingly bad, commercial radio was good. But all was New York news. For four days there was no way to get any local information at all. So… We piled logs on the open fire, cooked food from our steadily thawing freezer on the grill, fried eggs out there too – and read by daylight, flashlight and candlelight.

DirrTreesShrubs9780881929010lSo I was able to actually read Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees & Shrubs by Michael Dirr, all 950 pages of it, rather than look things up in it. OK, I didn’t read every single page but I read quite a lot of it. A proper review will come in a week or two but being an easy read, and opinionated and packed with information and very well illustrated is a winning combination for American gardeners. I wonder how it compares with the new Timber Press Encyclopedia of Flowering Shrubs by Jim Gardiner, a British expert. When Jim Gardiner’s book arrives, I’ll be able to tell you. I’ll try to sit down and read that too – without the need for another storm.

Burlap, hessian - or what?

Hessian/Burlap bags, used every week for the supermarket shop. Image © (all rights reserved)
The sleepy teenager on the checkout at my local supermarket looked at the bags I’d brought with me for my groceries (above, click to enlarge). She picked up one of them and said: “What’s this made of?” “It’s burlap” says I. “What’s burlap?” she asked. Hmmm… Good question. And is it the same as hessian – which is the word we use for this rough sacking material in Britain?

This is one of those things that I must have known in my student days – well, I presume I did - but now I can’t even remember whether I never knew it all or have just forgotten. Surely it’s not made of hemp, that seems vaguely familiar…

Anyway, I had a rummage through my thousands of plant books… then I looked a bit harder and I finally came up with the answer.

First off, hessian and burlap are the same thing. Secondly, it’s made from the fibers in the skin of the jute plant (we’ll get to that) although it was once also made from hemp or sisal fibers. Hemp is cannabis sativa, while sisal is Agave sisalana – another species of which brings us tequila! So it has good connections.

Jute is derived from two species of Corchorus (right, click to enlarge), which are loosely related to mallows and hollyhocks. And it Corchorus olitorius, Tossa jute, is related to hollyhocks. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. out that the areas of the world in which it can be grown are limited by the fact that it needs both a tropical climate and standing water. But the amount grown in India and Bangladesh is so huge that it’s second only to cotton as the world most grown fiber plant.

Combining strength with being permeable to air and moisture – says he in text book mode – hessian/burlap sacks have long been used for packing and carrying potatoes, coffee beans and other bulk agricultural crops. In North America, but rarely now in Britain, burlap is also used to wrap the rootballs of field grown trees and shrubs – hence the term B&B – balled and burlapped. In Britain container growing has largely taken over. But burlap/hessian has found a new use in re-useable shopping bags.

And the two bags in the picture? One from Terrain, the stylish American garden store, and one from Marshalls, the British vegetable seed company.  Both bags are in use every week at our local supermarket.

Christmas Day flower counts

Helleborus argutifolius often seems to flower at Christmas. Image ©
Well, having discussed the tradition of listing plants in bloom on Christmas day in my last post, I asked a few friends on both sides of the Atlantic to make lists this year. I myself dutifully went out on a chilly Christmas morning to count the plants in bloom in our Pennsylvania garden and was delighted to find far more than I expected – a grand total of… two!

These were two of the recent Gold Collection hellebores bred in Germany by Josef Heuger: Helleborus niger ‘HGC Jacob’ and ‘HGC Josef Lemper’. The mild weather two or three weeks ago had hurried them along, then it was down to 19F/-7C so they bent their heads and froze to the ground! I blogged about these impressive hellebores back in 2006, and also in 2008 when we had them in flower in mid November.

Back in England my friend Tracey Mathieson, who runs the lovely barn shop and garden called Foxtail Lilly, just a few hundred yards from our Northamptonshire home, took a quick look at her garden at Christmas and, surprisingly, came up with only three plants in flower: Helleborus argutifolius, Penstmon ‘Port Wine’ and Prunus x subhirtella ‘Autumnalis’.

The record from Russ Graham’s garden in Salem, Oregon, was also surprising: “My list is short this year,” he emailed: “Cyclamen hederifolium.” This is especially unexpected as Russ has been collecting early flowering forms of the Christmas rose, Helleborus niger, for some years.

“I do have Rhodie 'Christmas Cheer' and Viburnum 'Pink Dawn' blooms from a nearby neighbor open in the house,” he continued. “And a garden in Salem had H. niger in full bloom last Tuesday (they had a low of 23F/-5C already as did we...) I still only see tight buds. I do have H. foetidus with a couple of flowers essentially open but it is a bit of a stretch to think of it as "in bloom"”.

Bougainvillea and snow-capped peaks in Southern California. Image ©Ian CookeMuch farther south on the west coast, another British ex-pat Ian Cooke, author most recently of Designing Small Gardens, published in Britain in October and published in the North America in April 2012, reported: “I think maybe I got the easy one – Palm Springs, in Southern California…”

Ian explained that his own yard is tiny so he added what’s in bloom in his neighbor’s gardens and came up with a total of forty – but that counts the many cultivars of Bougainvillea, Hibiscus, Lantana, Nerium oleander and roses he spotted as just one of each.

Back in Britain Julia Boulton, the Editor of The Cottage Gardener, the quarterly magazine of the Cottage Garden Society, reported fourteen plants in bloom in her suburban garden on the south western edge of London, including a pyracantha with both flowers and berries, and three different roses but no hellebores.

And finally Clive Lane, who when writing in The Cottage Gardener back in 1988 revived this old Victorian tradition. This year Clive counted nineteen plants in bloom in his cottage garden in Cheshire, in the north west of England including three hellebores and, surprisingly, Genista monspessulana which has seeded everywhere in his garden.

You can check the full lists from Ian Cooke, Julia Boulton and Clive Lane.

Plants in flower on Christmas Day

Rosa-Suffolk-Winter-Frost-Rose-J019692Nearly twenty five years ago Clive Lane, for so long the guiding light of Britain’s Cottage Garden Society, revived an old Victorian custom. Writing in the Society’s Newsletter in December 1988 he said: “I believe there was a delightful custom in Victorian times for gardeners to list and publish the number of plants which were flowering in the garden on Christmas Day, and I have seen references to some quite remarkable lists.

“The length of the list, I feel sure, will depend very much more on where in the Kingdom the gardener lives (and of course to some extent on how much port was drunk after lunch on Christmas Day!) rather than on the gardeners’ green fingers. However, this quaint custom should be revived, and I propose asking all members of The Cottage Garden Society to forget that little snooze in the armchair before the Queen’s Speech and to take a look at what is flowering in your garden on Christmas Day.”

[For US readers: The Queen’s Speech – officially The Royal Christmas Message – is an annual broadcast by the Queen to her subjects. In the 1980s, if I remember rightly, it was broadcast on all British TV and radio channels at precisely 3pm on Christmas Day!]

Three months later Clive Lane reported that he’d received over a hundred lists and that a member in the west of England had counted the most with sixty three different varieties in flower in her garden on Christmas Day. These included five different roses, four hellebores, four euphorbias, polyanthus in all colours except blue, and the old double wallflower ‘Harpur Crewe’.

And Clive is right about it being an old tradition. Here’s just one example, a letter printed in the issue of The Garden dated 16 January 1909 from a garden near Falmouth, a cosy spot in the south west of England, listing plants in flower there on Christmas Day, 1908. The list includes such unexpected companions as Cobaea scandens, three nicotianas and Helleborus niger.

I’d add a list of my own at this point – but this year I’m in Pennsylvania and my notes are all in England. The rose at the top of this post, Suffolk (‘Kormixal’) was shot in Northamptonshire at Christmas 2010.

If you’re interested in cottage garden plants and cottage gardens, you should join Britain’s Cottage Garden Society. With their quarterly magazine, extensive seedlist and many other benefits membership is great value at just £12 in the UK, or £17 (about $27). It’s easy to join online.

Don’t you just love a Christmas Tree bargain?

Bargain Christmas Trees from Lowes. Image ©
Here in the US some people buy their Christmas trees a month before the holiday, as soon as they’ve recovered from Thanksgiving. Some wait until Christmas Eve. We went out for ours yesterday afternoon – and the timing was perfect.

We passed the local store - “Christmas Trees from $19.95” - and carried on to Lowe's (For Brits: Like a supersized B&Q) because we needed some bungees to tie the tree to the roof of the car. When we got to Lowes we were greeted by a “30% off Christmas Trees” sign. “OK,” we said, “let’s take a look.”

There were plenty of trees left, a range of species, and the quality was pretty good. And the prices… We picked out a 6ft/1.8m Balsam Fir (Abies balsamea) - $5.97 (£3.84). Then we thought: Perhaps we could have a tree by the front door too? 5ft/1.5m Fraser Fir (Abies fraseri) - $3.97 (£2.55). And then we thought: Why not have one on the back porch as well?! 5ft/1.5m Douglas Fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) - $2.97 (£1.91). Yes, you read right. And these were originally $30-$40 (c£20-25) trees!

The very friendly and helpful woman who netted the trees for us explained that the manager of the store had yesterday decided to slash the prices of the remaining trees.

Then at the checkout, two more happy surprises: Not only were there free plastic sheets and twine to help us get our trees well secured to the car. -- We still got the 30% discount! So, with sales tax, we got three trees, about 16ft/4.8m of tree in all, for $9.58. For Brits that’s £6.17. Don’t you just love a bargain?

But here’s the thing. Not only is this a great deal, but the staff were so friendly and helpful. And we were told that store manager, Evan Yanik, is full of great ideas that help the store by helping the customer. Makes you want to go back, doesn’t it. And you should have seen the poinsettias…

I just hope we have enough lights for three trees. Otherwise it will be back to Lowe's. Lights are 30% off, you know.